x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mark Webber still pushing boundaries as he approaches his 200th race in Formula One

Gary Meenaghan speaks to one of F1's most popular characters ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

With his 200th career F1 start approaching this Sunday, Mark Webber of Australia has not changed his approach since his first start in Formula One back in 2002. in
With his 200th career F1 start approaching this Sunday, Mark Webber of Australia has not changed his approach since his first start in Formula One back in 2002. in

Be it Rafael Nadal's remarkable 43-match winning streak at the Monte Carlo Masters or Ryan Giggs's incredible run of having scored in every Premier League season since 1990, consistency is key to remaining at the top of any sport.

Mark Webber, who will compete in his 200th grand prix on Sunday, in Bahrain, knows this as well as anyone.

The Australian is competing in his 12th consecutive season, having raced for five different teams, taking nine wins and 33 podiums.

Such statistics do not awaken awe when considering that his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, has won 27 races in 104 starts.

Yet are statistics not routinely shown to be a primeval means of measuring brilliance?

Important matters can be overlooked, when focusing solely on the record books.

The intense fight required of a driver who spent seven years in a car incapable of pushing for podiums; the respect earned from speaking out when everyone else remains silent; the determination to return from a broken leg; the ability to stay fit and focused at the front of the pack at the relatively ripe age of 36.

Webber may not have a drivers' title, but he is undoubtedly one of the most respected and popular men in the paddock. As David Coulthard, his former teammate, said earlier this week: "You don't get to do one grand prix if you don't have certain talent and you certainly don't get to do 200 if you are not delivering value."

On his debut in 2002, Webber became the first Australian in eight years to race at his home grand prix. Having qualified in 18th, at the age of 25, he finished fifth to provide his Minardi team with points for only the second time in seven seasons.

Paul Stoddart, the team principal, later admitted, "never in my wildest dreams" could he have imagined the scenes as the swollen crowd at Albert Park rushed the pit lane.

"It was just one of those crazy moments in Formula One that will go down in history," Stoddart said.

One of the fans that day was Stewart Murphy, who was attending his first Formula One weekend. Charmed by Webber's grit and passion, he went on to help found the driver's supporters club and has attended more than 50 of his compatriot's 200 races. He now lives in Abu Dhabi. On grand prix weekend at Yas Marina Circuit, his boat can be seen docked in the bay and decorated patriotically, complete with an Aussie flag and a boxing kangaroo.

"It's been a long road with Mark, so there is a lot of attachment," Murphy said in Bahrain on Friday.

"I've been to a quarter of his races, but that first race in Australia, wow. He got a better reception than any of the podium winners did and it all started from there. What people like about him the most is that he says it like it is. He doesn't get out there and try to impress the masses by saying what they want to hear. He says what he feels. It's just his manner."

Another Australian influenced by Webber's performance in the sphere of F1 is Daniel Ricciardo, who followed in his compatriot's footsteps to race with Toro Rosso. Ricciardo, 23, is under no illusions of the impact Webber has had on his career.

"For me and a lot of other young kids, he gave us a lot of hope and the belief that F1 was not impossible, which at times it did seem like, from Australia," Ricciardo said. "For him to have 200 grands prix, that's amazing."

After Minardi, Webber joined Jaguar and then Williams, where in his first season in 2005 he finished in the points at more than half of the year's 19 races. Sir Frank Williams, the team owner, maintains a strong relationship with his former driver.

"We [tease] each other, which is healthy and keeps us grounded," the typically mischievous Williams said.

"One of the things I noticed about Mark was that Formula One was a passion. It wasn't something that he thought he would do while he was young and make some money."

By the time Webber moved to Red Bull, in 2007, he was already 30, yet the Austrian-backed England-based team were still at an embryonic stage. They had a long-term game plan and were looking for an experienced driver.

It seemed a perfect fit and in many ways, it has been.

"When Mark signed to join the team, I don't think he could have imaged the kind of success that we would go on to achieve," Christian Horner, the team principal of the three-time constructors' champions said. Likewise, it is unlikely Horner would have imagined Webber would still be racing - and fighting for wins - with the team seven years later.

On a recent celebratory video produced by Red Bull to mark their driver's 200th race, Horner likened Webber to Giggs, 39, the Manchester United midfielder.

"People like Giggs are able to go on for many years because they kept themselves in good shape and applied themselves well," Horner said.

Webber, a keen football fan and a regular visitor to Old Trafford, called the remark a "sensational compliment", although he stopped short of agreeing.

"What Giggsy has done is phenomenal; running up and down that left wing for as long as he has done," he told The National.

"Formula One is a much more individual sport, though, and when you have that - be it tennis, boxing, racing driver, whatever - if you have a career spanning that long, it's quite impressive because the buck stops at you. It still does with football, but it's nice there that the camaraderie with teammates can help."

As consistent as Webber has been on the track, like Murphy said, he has also proved to be consistently - and refreshingly - honest off it.

It is a trait that leaves little to the imagination and has resulted in the occasional run-in with other drivers over the years. Once or twice a season, Webber's pleasant persona tends to disappear for a couple of seconds to reveal the true extent of the pressure-cooker environment in which he works.

In that sense, it is fitting, then, that his landmark race should arrive at a circuit that has come to define his refusal to bite his tongue.

In early 2011, as questions were being asked whether Bahrain's uprising should see the kingdom's annual grand prix cancelled, the majority of the F1 fraternity dug a hole in the desert and inserted their heads. Sponsors had to be considered and "no comment" became a popular phrase.

Yet Webber broke the mould. He spoke out and he spoke with passion. He earned more positive publicity than any other driver in the paddock and he did so simply by being sincere.

"It's just easy to be consistent that way," Webber said. "It's inevitable in this game: people will ask your opinions on things; every week we have a new subject.

"This gets more focused when you are successful and start to win and are at the front of the grid.

"You are not a different person, but people see you as a different person and because your credibility might have gone up, all of a sudden your answers have more value."

It is because of this candidness that in Malaysia, when Vettel disobeyed Red Bull orders and passed Webber to win the race, the anticipation to hear what the Australian would say afterward was electric. He did not disappoint, revealing he was considering his career, both at Red Bull and in F1.

One month later and things remain unclear. Webber has a one-year rolling contract with his team and refuses to look too far ahead. Will he, like Giggs, still be performing at the top of his sport when he is 39?

"I think I'll still be in really good shape when I'm 39. Whether I'll still be in Formula One, I'm not sure," he said.

"I bumped into [the former boxer] Frank Bruno a few years ago in a gym and he said the biggest fight of his life was actually stopping. It goes against everything … how we - any sportsman or woman - are wired up.

"Is it stopping, is it quitting, how is it perceived? I have asked myself that question two or three times in the past three or four years and the answer is still no, because I know there are more big results around the corner."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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